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HS2: Delay

Volume 828: debated on Friday 10 March 2023

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the likely immediate and long- term economic impacts of their decision to further delay HS2.

My Lords, yesterday the Secretary of State for Transport laid a Written Ministerial Statement reaffirming the Government’s commitment to building HS2 from Euston to Manchester. The Government will proceed with the opening stage of HS2 at pace. Due to inflationary pressures and supply chain challenges, the next two years will be used to rephase construction and focus on delivering phase 2a from Birmingham to Crewe in the most cost-effective way. A further update to Parliament will be made in May.

My Lords, this chaos just will not do. Throughout the north and the Midlands, tens of thousands of jobs and billions in economic growth are dependent on HS2, but this is all cast in doubt by a vague announcement slipped out last night in the hope that no one would notice. This chaos and chronic indecision are holding the country back and only adding to the bill for taxpayers in the long run—even the head of HS2 admits that delays will not save money. Can the Minister confirm today when the Crewe to Manchester route will be delivered? When can communities and businesses on this route have the certainty they need? Will the redesign of Euston include cutting platforms, likely killing off the eastern leg for good? If he cannot answer these questions, can he at least explain why the Government did not foresee that inflation would likely impact on the biggest infrastructure project in Europe?

First, I will deal with the issue of the Statement being issued yesterday. There was some excitement in the media about this, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State thought it best to put out a Statement. I fully accept that it is regrettable that it was delivered at the time it was. That was probably not in the best interests of either House; be that as it may, that is what happened. Secondly, on the question of the Crewe to Manchester route, we are committed to bringing high-speed infrastructure to Manchester as soon as possible, and we are not changing our assumptions on when the phase 2b western leg will be delivered.

My Lords, is this Statement not yet another sign of the Government levelling down rather than levelling up? It is a carefully crafted Statement drafted to let us down gently. Delays always raise costs and do not save money, and they go against the need for consistent capital spending to help sustain vital growth. What is the consequence for the Barnett spending formula for Wales now that the benefits of HS2 for Wales are being pushed further back and may now never happen?

My Lords, in the current economic climate, the Government are taking an honest and very pragmatic view. We have to realise the circumstances that we find ourselves in at the moment. On the Barnett consequences for Wales, I am afraid that I do not have those sorts of figures in front of me, but I will ensure that the noble Lord gets an answer to that question.

My Lords, will my noble friend accept that the claim that phasing the work over a longer period is going to save money will be met with some incredulity by those with experience of the management of large projects? Teams are dispersed; engineering expertise is sent elsewhere. Is it not really the case that the project is being dismembered and may never now be resurrected or, at least, it will be a wholly new project if it ever is?

I thank my noble friend for that question. No, I do not accept the premise that it is being dismembered. As I said, it is a question of pragmatism and of the economic situation that we find ourselves in. The Government are taking a reasoned view to deal with it.

My Lords, in the light of the Statement, can the Minister at least reassure the House that this railway line will reach Euston in the form in which it was originally intended and not stop at Old Oak Common?

I can. The Government are committed to delivering the line to Euston and are currently evaluating how best to do it. I can assure the noble Viscount that the Government are committed to that.

My Lords, does the noble Lord not accept that this announcement is being greeted with great disappointment on all sides of the House? This was a project for which there was substantial cross-party consensus. One of the failings of Britain over the years has been in carrying through major projects that could be economically transformative. I come from Cumberland, in the north. The HS2 project offered the prospect of investment, which will now not take place. Look at the investment taking place in Birmingham as a result of the prospect of HS2. The north is now being deprived. Does he not recognise that this is the end of the Conservatives’ ambitions to hold on to the red wall?

No, I do not accept that. I can only repeat that our ambition remains for the first high-speed services to run between Old Oak Common in west London and Birmingham Curzon Street by 2033. We are committed to it. I repeat that we find ourselves in an economic climate that perhaps will cause delay, and the Government have taken a very pragmatic view.

My Lords, I echo the disappointment that HS2 is not going to reach the north of England any time soon. I understand that the Government committed in the Statement to a further £100 million in the remaining spending period—I do not know how long that covers. What projects in the north will benefit from that £100 million? If my noble friend is not able to tell us today, can he write to me?

I am not in possession of that information. I will ensure that my noble friend gets an answer to her question. There will be an update in May, and it is quite possible that the answer will be contained in that.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for being here today, but it is obviously disappointing that we have not got the Minister here. It is partly, I am sure, because of the way this was handled in the first place, with the announcement last night, which was not, as the noble Lord acknowledged, the best way to do things. Has the noble Lord seen the comments from the National Infrastructure Commission, headed by Sir John Armitt, from John Smith from GB Railfreight, and from Henri Murison from the northern powerhouse, who described the decision as “half baked”, “disappointing” and “a false economy”? Will the noble Lord comment on those remarks?

I have not seen the comments, but I accept that it is disappointing. We have had difficulties with the supply chain and there are now difficulties going forward for contractors, I fully accept that but, no, I have not seen those comments—but I am not surprised they have been made.

My Lords, could I perhaps cadge a lift on this new government helicopter back to Yorkshire? Because if Italy, France, Taiwan and most advanced countries can do an advanced railway, why can we not have an advanced railway system to the whole of the north, and why is Yorkshire being excluded from it?

I really do not know why Yorkshire has been excluded from it. I fully accept that it would be wonderful to have an advanced railway system throughout the country: living as I do in the west of Wales, I would love to see it down there as well. It is a matter of investment, a matter of money. I go back to the point that we are currently in a difficult situation in terms of the economy, and we will do the best we possibly can, where we can.

I express my sympathy with the noble Lord who has been lumbered with this job. It really is not fair, and it is a discourtesy to the House, to send a Whip—not untalented—to reply to a series of technical questions about a major construction project. Will the noble Lord tell us why the Minister who serves this House from the Department for Transport is not present this afternoon?

On the project itself, will he reply to his noble friend and tell us of any major construction project in the world that has benefited financially from a long-term delay in its completion? Does he accept that much of the tunnelling that is being done through the Chilterns was unnecessary and created entirely by the opposition of nimbys, who presumably did not want the M40 motorway, which does much more damage to the environment than a twin-track railway line? They did not insist on that project being in a tunnel.

Finally, can he see any benefit, seriously, in someone taking a supposedly high-speed train from the centre of Birmingham to Old Oak Common, leaving the train and getting on either the Elizabeth line or the Underground to come into the centre of London? Is he aware that this announcement this morning makes us the laughing stock of the railway world?

First, I am sorry the noble Lord is disappointed that I am at the Dispatch Box today. Secondly, I am not a tunnelling expert and cannot give him an answer to that question. On his third point, on whether there has been any project in the world, I could not tell him: as I say, I am not a construction expert, but I am sure that somewhere along the line this must have occurred. As for this project, as I say, the Government are committed to delivering it. He mentioned the fact that delivery to Old Oak Common was perhaps unsatisfactory. Well, it is the first phase. The Government are completely committed to delivering that to Birmingham, and eventually, of course, we will have it to Euston.

My Lords, picking up on the question that was asked and not answered, have the Government made an assessment of which passengers will actually catch the train from Birmingham to Old Oak Common and then get on the Elizabeth line for half an hour? What is the demographic profile?

Turning to the original question I was going to ask, I should perhaps declare my position as a former resident of Somers Town and a campaigner, then, who met HS2 on a number of occasions. Have the Government made an assessment of the massive economic, social and environmental costs of what is already being done between Old Oak Common and Euston? If there is going to be a redesign, what is going to happen to the excess land that has been felled down to ground level? Have the Government thought about what will be done with that land?

I suspect that some work has been done in the department on the demographic profile, but I am not in possession of it at the moment. On the redesign and the social environment, again, the Government will probably have looked at this together with the contractors. I cannot be more specific than that, but I imagine that this is quite a high priority.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for being here today. We very much appreciate his coming to the House and the position that he has been put in, but could he arrange for a proper Statement to be made to the House and perhaps get the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, here to answer Members’ questions? That said, I thank him very much for being here today.